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Going online: Infrastructures and services for Internet delivered vocational education

Roger Atkinson

Murdoch University, Western Australia

Summary of presentation at the 3rd International Conference
"Researching Vocational Education and Training" July 14-16 1999, Bolton Institute

Internet based delivery of vocational education and training requires development of new kinds of infrastructures and services. What are these services? What's the best way to obtain them? This article reviews the specialised requirements for college and industry based online courses, with particular reference to "in house" and "outsourced" access to world wide web course servers.


Online learning offers attractive ways to enhance the flexible delivery of vocational education and training. Online learning facilitates communications between students and tutors, enables peer group communications between students, allows frequent updating of study materials, includes access to online resources worldwide, and it may be integrated with many kinds of interactive multimedia and computer assisted learning.

Online learning has special attractions for work place based training and corporate training. Often an organisation has well developed local and wide area network communications for purposes of its business operations. In such cases online learning may offer good economies and high effectiveness with respect to use of existing workstations, servers and network equipment, whilst existing online documentation may provide reference material for training programs.

However, online learning and Internet based delivery require the development of, or access to, new kinds of infrastructures and services. What are these services? What's the best way to obtain them? This presentation considers these questions, using some Australian and international examples to illustrate the major kinds of options for organisations and businesses.

Characterising online learning

Implementations of online learning may show considerable variation, depending upon the kind of combination or integration made with other techniques and media for teaching and learning. For example, classroom based face to face teaching may be supported by online reading of reference materials, or online learning may be complemented by supervised, on the job practical work. The common feature in these simple examples is using networked computers for at least some of the teaching and learning activities in a course or unit of study. Characteristically, though not invariably, the network communication is by Internet Protocols, and the software interface for students is a World Wide Web reader, usually Netscape or Internet Explorer.

The popularity and extraordinary growth of the world wide web is one of the principal factors generating interest in online learning, to the extent that "web delivery" or "Internet delivery" are almost synonymous with online learning. However, there are other important associations for online learning. For computer assisted learning, computer managed learning, interactive multimedia, or any use of computers in teaching and learning, the world wide web provides a remarkably effective way to present and manage a student's interactions with computer based resources. For flexible delivery, open learning and distance education, online learning via the web offers a new medium with special capacity for enhancement of communications and improved access to text and multimedia resources, among other features.

Infrastructure and services

The association of online learning with the Internet, the world wide web, flexible delivery, distance education and related topics gives us a way to specify most of the infrastructure and services requirements. The infrastructure for online learning is essentially an infrastructure for use of web pages - personal computer, Internet access and information literacy skills. However, there is an additional, highly significant requirement: a web course server, as described below. Services for online learning are essentially the same as for flexible delivery, open learning and distance education: curriculum development, staff development, instructional design, production services, teaching, and class management and related delivery support tasks. Although being essentially similar for all media in use for a course, these services have to be adapted to incorporate specifics for online learning, especially in the areas of production services, class management and delivery support, as described below.

Depending upon the context and circumstances, access to a personal computer and the Internet may be provided by the individual student, or by the student's employer or organisation. "Mixed" provisions are common, for example a college may provide on campus laboratories, or an employee may use his or her workstation, whilst home based modem access via a third party Internet Service Provider (ISP) is an optional extra funded by the student [1]. User support and help desk services for students may be an area of ambiguous division between different kinds of staff in a college or business organisation or an ISP or even the computer dealer from which the hardware was purchased. Weaknesses in the area of user support and help desk services may require attention. If a student's access is poor or non-functional, the student cannot participate in the learning activities [2, 3].

Services for online learning, ranging from curriculum development to delivery support, are in most cases built upon existing resources. These may include curriculum development for existing courses, existing materials such as printed manuals or study guides, expertise in instructional designs for self paced study, flexible delivery, etc, and production capabilities in graphics and other media. Usually these kinds of resources are relatively well developed in Australia's colleges of technical and further education ("TAFE"), but for industry based training, "outsourcing" to obtain the resources for these kinds of services is more likely to occur. This may tend to be associated with "outsourcing" to fulfil the technical infrastructure requirement for a web course server, as discussed below.

The re-assuring features about infrastructure and services requirements are that an organisation may have much of it in place already, there are a range of options for covering any gaps which may occur, and as discussed further below, there is plenty of scope for low cost, low risk trials and pilots. The disconcerting feature is that, like a chain, a system of infrastructure and services is only as strong as its weakest link. Trialing, piloting, testing, evaluating and modifying are vital parts of the routine for online course developers.

"In house" web course servers

Within the suite of technical infrastructure needs for online learning, the web course server is probably the most specific, the most critical and the most "mysterious". It is the area in which the hardest work may have to be done, to define a strategy, select tools, implement, maintain and "mount" courses, units or training programs. However, in many cases it is relatively easy to initiate experimental or pilot developments with an "in house" server, and the alternative approach of "outsourcing" (below) is also readily available.

Kaplan [4] summarises developments towards a web course server:

There are basically two choices when it comes to software for developing Web courses: (1) component, off-the-shelf software that allows for the creation of audio slide lectures, course materials, discussion forums, animations, synchronous chat groups, quiz creators, e-mail, and so forth, or (2) integrated packages that contain a number of the same features but are lacking in other significant areas.

Experimental or pilot developments are relatively easy if an organisation has an in house web server and it gives lecturers or trainers facilities and encouragements to put up web files relating to their teaching. In educational institutions this has been characterised as an "anarchic" stage of development [5, 6], but for many practitioners it has been a stage of successive refinements towards an integrated suite of capabilities in an organisational web course server. Start with simple web pages on a standard web server, for example NCSA or Apache servers, add some functionality via email discussion lists or web based bulletin boards, add further functionality via web server scripts ("cgi scripts", usually drawn from the freeware domain), java script applets and other techniques, and so on.

Typically, further development then diverges - some institutions have continued to develop their own "in house" web course server, whilst others have changed over to a purchased, "off the shelf" integrated product. For example, here is a brief listing of current directions for some Australian TAFE authorities and universities, to indicate that diversity is the trend [7, 8]:

In house TAFE NSW, Victoria, Queensland
Universities New South Wales, Griffith, Edith Cowan, Deakin
Purchased TAFE South Australia (WebCT), Western Australia (WebCT or TopClass), Swinburne (The Learning Manager), Canberra Inst Technology (TechWorks)
Universities Murdoch (WebCT), Curtain (WebCT), U Technology Sydney (Top Class), Flinders (WebCT), New England (WebCT), Canberra (WebCT), U Western Sydney Nepean (TopClass)

A large number of "off the shelf" integrated products are available [9]. In most cases the producers facilitate low cost, low risk experiments, by permitting free download of demonstration copies for "no obligation", "try before you buy" installations on an organisation's own server. This kind of service, and attractive prices, may be the most critical factor, together with shortages of specialised programmers, in tipping the balance towards purchase instead of in house development, especially for organisations with small to medium sized information technology services units.

Typically, these products are under continuous development, including incorporation of any new feature or improvements implemented by their competitors. Therefore, differentiations between products, in the sense of "which is the best choice", are not readily identifiable. This leads to a re-assuring indication that the question of "which?" is not a critically significant matter. The more critical matters are likely to be skills, commitment and resources in the "people" areas of "going online". For this reason, case studies can be valuable for study, regardless of the specific package used [9].

"Outsourced" web course servers

This is an alternative to "in house" development of web course servers. Availability and kinds of services in Australia may be illustrated by two examples. In the first, TechWorks has developed its own web course environment, whilst in the second, TTP has adopted WebCT as its web course server.

Example: TechWorks [10]

".... Through the use of new and emerging technologies associated with the Internet, TechWorks' online learning system can deliver customised learning programs on demand, administer individual assessment, manage learner progress, manage corporate learning programs, provide learning support for a range of learning models and provide access to learning resources of unprecedented magnitude"[11].

TechWorks describes its relationships with customers such as Qantas, BHP, Centrelink, Air Services Australia (TechWorks, 1999) and a range of vocational training providers as "partnerships". As TechWorks manages the server and server applications for online training (the TechWorks Learning System), there is little impact on the day to day operations of IT personnel. An outsourced online learning system is represented as an opportunity to add value to and enhance productive use of corporate networks which are already in place. The production of online resources, involving a content specialist, writer, instructional designer, programmer and graphic designer, is supported by a TechWorks production team[11].

Example: The Training Precinct [12]

The Training Precinct (Australia) Pty Ltd develops online courses for organisations, and provides a course hosting facility using WebCT. TTP describes its services in two categories, technical hosting and content development. Hosting services include "TTP Incubator", enabling clients to trial their own courses on TTP's server, "TTP Integrator" delivering courses from TTP's servers, and "TTP Independent" which is setting up courses on a client's own server. Content development comprises educational, graphic and web page design services for clients[12].

Features in the activities of these companies include the willingness to supply a flexible range of services, from web server space to training for the client's lecturers or training personnel, as required, and the emergence of both competitive and partnership relationships with existing institutions.

More generally, a very wide range of interesting examples [7, 8] are available. Amongst publishers, Harcourt Brace WebCT enables free access to a WebCT site for new adopters of any Harcourt Brace College text. Web services include online multiple choice quizzes for specific text books[13]. McGraw-Hill Learning Architecture offers "...a web-based learning system that combines trusted McGraw-Hill content with innovative Top Class software from WBT Systems." McGraw-Hill's site includes PageOut, providing web space and services which are free for adopters of McGraw-Hill texts[14].

Many of the world's large corporations are involved in online education and training for staff and customers, for example in information technology these include Microsoft[15], Sun Microsystems[16], Cisco Systems[17], etc. Some have "outsourced" delivery and other services to educational institutions or other partners, especially in cases where "certification" by the corporation is a highly marketable qualification[18].

Concluding comments

As teachers, trainers and managers often feel that there is an intimidating gap between the techniques and media they are used to, and the new technologies for "going online", it's important to be aware of the scope for learning, experimenting and developing in low risk ways - some outlined above - which need not incur "hyperstress" for the staff involved. Although new kinds of competition are emerging in online delivery, there are also new kinds of national collaboration, for example via ANTA [19], and many pleasant instances of free provisions of help for beginners, from Wodonga [20] to Wellington [21].


[1] Atkinson, R. (1998). Internet access, help desks and online study. OLA Virtual Conference 98.

[2] Atkinson, R. (1997a). Murdoch Online: Preparing an infrastructure for virtual campus operations. In R. Kevill, R . Oliver and R. Phillips (eds), ASCLITE '97: What works and why, 42-47. Perth: Curtin University.

[3] Atkinson, R. and Brown, A. (1997b). Online units: What infrastructure services are required? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds) (1997). Learning Through Teaching, 6-11. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum. Perth: Murdoch University.</A>

[4] Kaplan, H.(1998). Building your own web course: The case for off-the-shelf component software. CAUSE/EFFECT, 21(4).

[5] Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (1998). Online teaching: Implications for institutional and academic staff development. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology.

[6] Atkinson, R., Brown, A., Pospisil, R. and Rehn, G. (1998). So you want to put your course on the web? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum. Perth: The University of Western Australia.

[7] trdev-aus: Online courses.

[8] Online units: Australian examples.

[9] Atkinson, R. (1999). Course server software for online teaching.

[10] TechWorks (1999).

[11] Keough, M. (1998). Successful models for enterprise vocational education: Distributed learning strategies. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology.

[12] The Training Precinct (1999).

[13] Harcourt Brace WebCT (1999).

[14] McGraw-Hill Learning Architecture (1999).

[15] Microsoft Training and Certification.

[16] Sun Microsystems.

[17] Cisco Systems Training.

[18] Microsoft Authorised Academic Training Program.

[19] Australian National Training Authority (ANTA).

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[20] Wodonga Institute of TAFE (1998). Online Writing.

[21] Wellington Polytechnic. Teaching Techniques for Adult Learning.

Dr Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
Murdoch WA 6150

Phone: +61 8 9360 6840 Fax: +61 8 9310 4929

This document was added to the Education-line database 28 June 1999